From I Spy to Eyewitness: expert Sue Unstead chooses the non-fiction books that have inspired and educated readers over the course of Books for Keeps’ history.
I must declare my hand at the outset: I was Children’s Publisher at DK for 11 years from 1988 to 1999. To avoid all accusations of bias I have asked a number of authors, librarians, booksellers and publishers for their choices of non-fiction, thereby prompting musings on their own childhood favourites – rather beyond the thirty plus year span of BfK’s lifetime, but interesting to share. One publisher recalled her treasured collection of Ladybird books, in particular The Ladybird Book of the Seashore and Seashore Life – ‘so full of interesting facts and lovely illustrations’ – that ignited a life-long interest in natural history and which she shared with her own children (in spite of their complaints about the font being too small for modern readers). Others remember collecting the I-Spy books in which you actually wrote on the pages and ticked boxes as you identified letterboxes or lychgates. An eminent historian and headmaster cited Our Democracy, a title which clearly awakened a life-long interest in politics, though he also confessed to a passion for Victorian train timetables. Several had fond memories of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, a companion of my own childhood, though I seem to recall focusing more on the practical projects – origami, simple experiments and shadow play – rather than the post-Empire view of the world.
However we must begin in 1982, when non-fiction reviews were hardly to be found on the pages of BfK amidst the titles by Rumer Godden and Val Biro, among Paddington Bear and Sweet Valley High. This was an era when non-fiction had slipped firmly back into the school and library market, occupying little space on the shelves of the average high street bookshop. The publisher Usborne was a notable exception with a range of affordable and busily illustrated titles that had an appeal beyond the classroom. The most prolific of the school and library publishers such as Kingfisher, Franklin Watts and Wayland, were already exploring co-edition markets to increase print runs for the expensive investment required of major reference projects, but non-fiction was still regarded as a second-class citizen at the international bookfairs of Bologna and Frankfurt.
Prior to this the most interesting titles were often to be found in the lists of traditional fiction houses – at Collins for example where David Macaulay, originally published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, produced the strikingly graphic imagery of Cathedral in 1974. This was followed by City, Pyramid and Castle. For a younger age group, from Puffin, The Baby’s Catalogue, by Alan Ahlberg, which surely counts as a very first non-fiction title.
It was in the late 1980s that the publishing world was taken aback by the startlingly fresh approach of Eyewitness, the first four titles – Bird, Rock & Mineral, Skeleton, Arms and Armour– published in 1988. It is hard now to appreciate how radically different they looked, their high-quality photographs cut away against a white background, shadows inserted to make the objects look three-dimensional on the page, text, captions and annotation closely integrated with the pictures. The books were the result of an extraordinary creative partnership between Pierre Marchand of French publisher Gallimard and Peter Kindersley and his team at DK. The books cost more per page to produce than probably any other children’s book before, made possible by the shared printing by a host of publishers around the world. The series eventually grew to more than a hundred titles, with over 50 million copies sold in over 40 languages.
That autumn of 1988 also saw the publication of The Way Things Work, a creative partnership between David Macaulay, author Neil Ardley and DK. It remains one of the best and funniest books on physics and technology, published at a point when it was still possible to look inside things that went whirr and click, rather than buzz and bleep.
The ability to invest heavily in ambitious projects unlocked all sorts of creative doors. It allowed a single illustrator (such as Stephen Biesty) to work on a single project for two years or more. It made possible the publication of major reference titles such as a Children’s Encyclopedia created by a team of more than 50 editors, designers and writers. The next ten years saw an extraordinary flourishing of children’s non-fiction as baby-boomers sought books to educate their young, and with the UK leading the way in international markets. Oxford published a major new multi-volume Children’s Encyclopedia, and single volume versions appeared from DK, Usborne and Kingfisher. Everyone it seemed was building a bigger and better reference library for all age levels, and for all markets around the world.
By the turn of the century things were beginning to look less rosy. Perhaps by now the market had become saturated, by books that were all starting to look the same. CD roms were offering a new way to explore familiar subjects, from dinosaurs to dictionaries, but it was hard to see quite how to recoup the huge investment of creating them. Ten years on and the internet has all but destroyed the traditional area of children’s reference publishing for a new generation of Google users. Public libraries are disappearing and school libraries are rapidly becoming an endangered species. E-books and apps offer the promise of new possibilities, but it seems the time is ripe for change and for a new way forward.
Here are some of the chosen favourites, not all still in print:
Eyewitness Guides: Ancient Egypt 978-1405368315 Dorling Kindersley £6.99 pbk – an early title published in association with the British Museum, in a series that went on to sell over 50 million copies in over 40 languages.
The Way Things Work 978-1405302388 Dorling Kindersley £18.99 pbk- it made the NY Times bestseller list and went on to sell over 2 million copies before being reinvented as a CD Rom.
Stephen Biesty’s Incredible Cross-Sections – Eagle magazine cutaways reinvented in fascinating detail. Companion titles Castle and Man o’ War. O/P
Horrible Histories, and their offspring Horrible Science and Horribly Famous – not on everyone’s list of favourites, but impossible to ignore for their ability to encourage readers.
The Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity 978-1591744276 Klutz £14.99 hbk– imaginative and irreverent titles by inventive US publisher. Good enough to give as a birthday present, that ultimate accolade for non-fiction.
The Dangerous Book for Boys 978-0007232741 HarperCollins £20.00 hbk – back to conkers, catapults, go-carts and all thing that fly in the face of Health and Safety, plus plenty of good solid facts.
Walker’s Read and Wonder series including Think of an Eel 978-1406312010 Karen Wallace and Mike Bostock Walker Books O/P – the very best of narrative non-fiction by outstanding authors and illustrators.
First Discoveries – invented by French publisher Gallimard as an artwork version of Eyewitness, with acetate pages, flaps and sumptuous illustrations. And for older readers Kingfisher’s Kaleidoscopes from the same stable.
The Kid’s Art Pack by Ron van der Meer 978-0789421692 Dorling Kindersley O/P – a children’s version of this brilliantly clever introduction to art, with flaps, pop-ups, fold-out pages and removable books and folders.
The Great Grammar Book by Kate Petty and Jennie Maizels 978-1898304753 £14.99 Hbk Bodly Head – imaginative and ingenious pop-up explanation of this most abstract of topics.
Egyptology by Emily Sands, Dugald Steer, Nick Harris, Helen Ward and Ian Andrew 978-1840118520 £17.99 hbk, the best of Templar’s imaginative non-fiction series.
Nicola Davies’ Ice Bear, Blue Whale, Poo and any other title by this wonderful non-fiction writer of natural history.
Sue Unstead spent 25 years as a publisher of children’s non-fiction before becoming an author and educational consultant.